Multimodality in Problem-Based Learning (PBL): An Interactional Ethnography

  • Susan Bridges
  • Michael Botelho
  • Judith L. Green
  • Anson C.M. Chau
Part of the Innovation and Change in Professional Education book series (ICPE, volume 8)


Black and Wiliam (Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London: King’s College London School of Education, 1998) introduced the term ‘inside the black box’ to research in educational assessment in the late 1990s. This metaphor can be applied to current research in problem-based learning (PBL). This chapter addresses the need to look inside the ‘black box’ of PBL by exploring two under-researched aspects – independent study and online learning. Using the Interactional Ethnographic (IE) approach to collect and analyse data in context and over time (across contexts), we systematically examined how students learn between tutorials, to explore how online learning supports independent study in a PBL curriculum. The data sources for this chapter are drawn from a single third-year PBL group (n = 8) in a five-year Bachelor of Dental Surgery (BDS) curriculum. By focusing on independent study and online learning, the results provide new insights into how multimodal texts and tools support learning across a blended, problem-based curriculum. Data sources included video and screen capture recordings of naturally occurring classroom and independent study activity across one problem cycle. Audio and video data were transcribed using Transana™. Application of key theories of semiosis provided further explanations of how the multimodal texts and mediating tools appropriated throughout a problem cycle were socially and academically consequential to knowledge construction. Evidence was found that the use of various texts and tools across a problem cycle supported a discursive shift from stimulus for hypothesising to evidence for final hypotheses.


Online Learning Learn Management System Clinical Photograph Disciplinary Knowledge Screen Capture 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors wish to thank the participating undergraduate dental students and PBL facilitators for their support of this study and the University of Hong Kong for research funding. Additional thanks go to Ms Jessica Wong and Ms Rita Suen Po Chu for research assistance.


  1. Agar, M. (2004). We have met the other and we’re all nonlinear: Ethnography as a nonlinear dynamic system. Journal of Complexity, 10(2), 16–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baker, C. (1997). Membership categorisation and interview accounts. In D. Silverman (Ed.), Qualitative research: Theory, method and practice (pp. 130–143). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  3. Barrows, H. (1999). A taxonomy of problem-based learning methods. In J. A. Rankin (Ed.), Handbook on problem-based learning (pp. 19–26). New York: Forbes.Google Scholar
  4. Barrows, H. S. (1985). How to design a problem-based curriculum for the preclinical years (Vol. 8). New York: Springer.Google Scholar
  5. Barrows, H. S. (1988). The tutorial process. Springfield, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. London: King’s College London School of Education.Google Scholar
  7. Bridges, S. M., Botelho, M. G., & Tsang, P. C. S. (2010). PBL.2.0: Blended learning for an interactive, problem-based pedagogy. Medical Education, 44, 1131.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bridges, S. M., Dyson, J. E., & Corbet, E. F. (2009). Blended learning, knowledge co-construction and undergraduate group work. Medical Education, 43, 490–491.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bruner, J. (1962). Introduction. In L. S. Vygotsky (Ed.), Thought and language (pp. v–x). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  10. Butler, R., Inman, D., & Lobb, D. (2005). Problem-based learning and the medical school: Another case of the emperor's new clothes? Advances in Physiology Education, 29(4), 194–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Castanheira, M. L., Crawford, T., Dixon, C. N., & Green, J. L. (2000). Interactional ethnography: An approach to studying the social construction of literate practices. Linguistics and Education, 11(4), 353–400.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Castanheira, M. L., Green, J., Dixon, C., & Yeager, B. (2007). (Re)Formulating identities in the face of fluid modernity: An interactional ethnographic approach. International Journal of Educational Research, 46(3–4), 172–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dixon, C., Green, J., & Brandt, L. (2005). Studying the discursive construction of texts in classrooms. In R. Beach, J. Green, M. Kamil, & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Multidisciplinary perspectives on literacy research (pp. 349–390). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.Google Scholar
  14. Downing, K. (2009). Problem-based learning and the development of metacognition. Higher Education, 57(5), 609–621.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Education Commission. (2000). Learning for life, learning through life: Reform proposals for the education system in Hong Kong. Hong Kong: Printing Department, Government of the HKSAR.Google Scholar
  16. Freebody, P. (2003). Qualitative research in education: Interaction and practice. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  17. Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2008). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Francisco: Wiley.Google Scholar
  18. Gijselaers, W. H. (1996). Connecting problem-based practices with educational theory. In L. Wilkerson & W. H. Gijselaers (Eds.), Bringing problem-based learning to higher educaiton:Theory and practice (Vol. 68, pp. 13–22). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  19. Glenn, P. J., Koschmann, T., & Conlee, M. (1999). Theory presentation and assessment in a problem-based learning group. Discourse Processes, 27(2), 119–133.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Green, J., Dixon, C., & Zaharlick, A. (2003). Ethnography as a logic of inquiry. In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. Squire, & J. Jensen (Eds.), Handbook of research on the teaching of language arts (pp. 201–224). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Asssociates.Google Scholar
  21. Green, J., & McClelland, M. (1999). What difference does the difference make? Understanding difference across perspectives. Discourse Processes, 27(2), 219–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gumperz, J. J., & Hymes, D. (1972). Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. New York: Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
  23. Hillenburg, K. L., Cederberg, R. A., Gray, S. A., Hurst, C. L., Johnson, G. K., & Potter, B. J. (2006). E-Learning and the future of dental education: Opinions of administrators and informatin technology specialists. European Journal of Dental Education, 10, 169–177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hmelo-Silver, C. E. (2004). Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235–266.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Hmelo-Silver, C. E., & Barrows, H. S. (2006). Goals and strategies of a problem-based learning facilitator. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 1, 21–39.Google Scholar
  26. Hmelo-Silver, C. E., & Barrows, H. S. (2008). Facilitating collaborative knowledge building. Cognition and Instruction, 26, 48–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hmelo-Silver, C. E., Duncan, R. G., & Chinn, C. A. (2007). Scaffolding and achievement in problem-based and inquiry learning: A response to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006). Educational Psychologist, 42, 99–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Jewitt, C. (2008). Multimodality and literacy in school classrooms. Review of Research in Education, 32, 241–267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. John-Steiner, V., & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framework. Educational Psychologist , 31, 191–206.Google Scholar
  30. Jonassen, D. H. (1997). Instructional design models for well-structured and ill-structured problem-solving learning outcomes. Etr&D-Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(1), 65–94.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychology , 41(2), 75–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kress, G. (2000). Multimodality. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies (pp. 182–202). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  33. Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A social semiotic approach to contemporary communication. London and New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  34. McGrath, C., Comfort, M. B., Luo, Y., Samaranayake, L. P., & Clark, C. D. (2006). Application of an interactive computer program to manage a problem-based dental curriculum. Journal of Dental Education, 70(4), 387–397.Google Scholar
  35. Mitchell, J. C. (1984). Typicality and the case study. In R. F. Ellen (Ed.), Ethnographic research (pp. 238–240). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  36. New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review , 66(1), 60–92.Google Scholar
  37. Norman, G., & Schmidt, H. (2000). Effectiveness of problem-based learning curricula: Theory, practice and paper darts. Medical Education, 34(9), 721–728.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Nuthall, G. (2000). The anatomy of memory in the classroom: Understanding how students acquire memory processes from classroom activities in science and social studies units. American Educational Research Journal, 37(1), 247–304.Google Scholar
  39. Oliver, R., Kersten, H., Vinkka-Puhakka, H., Alpasan, G., Bearn, D., Cema, I., et al. (2008). Curriculum structure: Principles and strategy. European Journal of Dental Education, 12(s1 Global Congress on Dental Education III), 74–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual Review of Psychology, 49, 345–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Prosser, M. (2004). A student learning perspective on teaching and learning with implications for problem-based learning. European Journal of Dental Education, 8, 51–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Putney, L. G., Green, J. L., Dixon, C., Duran, R., & Yeager, B. (2000). Consequential progressions: Exploring collective-individual development in a bilingual classroom. In C. D. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 86–126). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., & Jefferson, G. (1974). Simplest systematics for organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50(4), 696–735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schmidt, H. G., & Moust, J. C. (2000). Factors affecting small-group tutorial learning: A review of research. In D. H. Evensen & C. E. Hmelo (Eds.), Problem-based learning: A research perspective on learning interactions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  45. Smith, D. (1987). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Wertsch, J. (1994). Mediated action in sociocultural studies. Mind, Culture and Activity, 1, 202–208.Google Scholar
  47. Winning, T., & Townsend, G. (2007). Problem-based learning in dental education: What’s the evidence for and against… and is it worth the effort? Australian Dental Journal, 52(1), 2–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Bridges
    • 1
  • Michael Botelho
    • 2
  • Judith L. Green
    • 3
  • Anson C.M. Chau
    • 2
  1. 1.Faculty of DentistryThe University of Hong KongHong KongChina
  2. 2.Faculty of DentistryThe University of Hong KongPokfulamHong Kong
  3. 3.Gevirtz Graduate School of Education, University of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA

Personalised recommendations